Religion and Rationality

Martin Newland tells us plaintively that ‘these days people find it hard to accept that religion and rationality can co-exist.’ Well, maybe; some people; other people clearly find it very easy. And as for ‘these days’, I would say the social pressure is running more in the other direction ‘these days’ than it did, say, twenty years ago. But maybe by ‘these days’ Newland means ‘these past three hundred years’.

At any rate, he shows us how well religion and rationality can co-exist.

I am a Roman Catholic. As such, I believe that God took the decision to be born into a poor family in Roman-occupied Palestine. I believe that His short life on earth was spent setting down the rules by which He expected us to live, and I believe that as a sign of His love for us He humbled himself on a cross, died and rose again. I believe that He left behind a church which is infused with His Spirit but also subject to sin. I further believe, if pressed, that the fullest incarnation of God’s plan for his church resides in the Roman Catholic Church, with the successor of St Peter at its head and the Apostolic Succession as its historical guarantor.

Okay [Interlude. My eyes happened to move up from the screen to the window while I thought for a second, and they caught the most lurid rainbow – I had to get up and go stare at it for awhile. You should see it. It happens to end right in the bit of Puget Sound I can see from that window – grey water, grey clouds, and this luridly glowing arc of colour transecting them, hovering above the water. It’s moved closer now and is over the marina and ends on the shipping pier. Now it’s fading. Going…going…whew, that was pretty.] Okay do I think it’s rational to believe those things? No. I can see wanting to believe them, and so deciding to believe them; I can agree that I have plenty of irrational beliefs myself; but I can’t say that I think those beliefs are rational; so in that sense he’s right: I don’t think religion and rationality can co-exist. I think rational people can have irrational beliefs, but I don’t think the irrational beliefs become rational merely because rational people have them; I think they remain irrational. So if Newland’s point is that we should think those beliefs are religious and also rational, it’s a fair cop: I don’t.

He says other things along the way, some of them rather unpleasant.

Reactions in everyday secular society to manifestations of religiosity, such as the veil, range from a patronising accept-ance to the downright insulting…Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claims that the veil is not mandated by the Qur’an. But what is mandated is that women cover themselves. What is also mandated is that men dress plainly. And the original texts have been followed, as in all the mainstream faiths, by teachings and interpretation which are also considered by the faithful to be linked to the will of God.

What does that mean, ‘linked to the will of God’? Linked how? In what sense? In what way? By whom? But more to the point – does he not realize what a repulsive phrase that is, ‘what is mandated is that women cover themselves’? Especially when followed by the asymmetrical mandate that men dress plainly? Does he not know how that sounds? Does he not get that it sounds like sheer revulsion and hatred? That it sounds like a visceral reaction to women as both seductive and disgusting? That it frames us as purulent heaving steaming piles of sex organs? He probably doesn’t, but he damn well ought to. He ought to imagine for one second walking down the street in ordinary clothes and having someone shout at him in a voice of rage ‘Cover yourself!’

But I feel a kinship with those Muslim women because the world is full of Jack Straws, who imply by their actions that religiosity entails something vaguely misguided or sinister, something that is ill at ease with public life. By involving the nation in an intensely critical, secularised debate on their personal religious observances, Straw has insulted these women in the same way that I feel insulted and hurt by Madonna aping Christ crucified, by part of the Act of Settlement, by the burning of papal effigies in southern England and by the use of a compulsory BBC licence fee to broadcast the offensive Jerry Springer: The Opera.

But the ‘personal religious observances’ in question are also public, and what we do in public has the potential to be the subject of debate. That’s how it is. (That’s why I never go out. Everybody’s a critic.) At least until theocracy becomes universal (at which time it might not be Newland’s religion that is the favoured one, and he will get all nostalgic for secularism).

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